Geologist who discovered oldest water on earth wins top science prize

The country’s highest awards for science were awarded by the Rt. Hon. Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada, the Hon. Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Sport, and Dr. Digvir S. Jayas, interim president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) at Rideau Hall on May 6, 2019.

Twenty-eight of Canada’s top scientists and seven industry partners were honoured.

The top prize – the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering (worth $1 million) – went to a geologist, Dr. Barbara Sherwood Lollar. She is an earth sciences professor at the University of Toronto.

Her insight about the nature of water and life on our planet have opened the door to further discovery about the origins and evolution of earth. Her discoveries and expertise are helping shape space exploration and the search for life on other planets.

Sherwood Lollar’s insights about the nature of water and life on earth led her and her team to finding the oldest water on earth. That discovery in 2016 won her the NSERC’s John C. Polanyi Award.

As reported by CBC, the ancient water discovery stems from Sherwood Lollar and her team's earlier exploration of an active copper, zinc and silver mine in Timmins, Ontario, in 2013, when geochemical analyses of the water sample at a depth of 2.4 kilometres showed it was a billion years old.

When the team got deeper – three kilometres down – in 2016, the water extracted was estimated to be even older – up to 2 billion years old.

"That could have great ramifications as to how life might exist at these kinds of depths, how it might survive," Oliver Warr, a postdoctoral researcher and leader of the team, remarked in the CBC report. "It could start paving the way for understanding life on other planets as well."

Last month, Sherwood Lollar was selected by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research to co-lead an international program of exploration of the deep earth that builds on her previous work.

(A version of this article first appeared in the Canadian Mining Journal)